Make your own free website on


by Catriona Macpherson

This is the original paper presented at a Round Table discussion several years ago at Pennsic. An updated version is being worked on at present.

Many nomadic tribes have been labeled barbarians by "other cultures." We may be playing with semantics here but I submit that most nomads are not barbarians, but are a product of their environment, now and in the past. Because of the land they dwelt in, they modified their lives in order to survive. Another way of saying it was the land shaped their lives.

You do what you have to do in order to survive.

The nomads were not barbarians; they were born into a harsh climate forcing them to be fierce and sometimes cruel by our standards in order to survive. Being constantly occupied with survival, they had no time to learn a more sophisticated way of life, as had the sedentary peoples of China and Iran. Nomads were not mentally inferior; but specialists in survival against severe odds. It has been said they did not know how to build a bridge to cross a river, (a mark of civilization, I'm sure). Of what need had they for a bridge? For one thing, they might never need to cross a particular river at that particular spot again since they were always on the move; for another, they could cross rivers by piling their possesssions on top of their horses, and swim them across, while holding on to their horses' tails. Why tie themselves to a certain route, possibly going miles out of their way, just because there was a bridge there to cross the river. Sedentary people became too dependent on bridges, walls and other accoutrements of "civilization", dulling their ability to think and act quickly in a crisis. Not so the nomad; his wits were always razor sharp, enabling him to face his environment with a good chance to survive whatever came his way.

There are many levels of civilization, each with its accompanying body of knowledge and customs. The nomads may not have been on the top rung of the ladder but they certainly had their place on the ladder.

The Mongols, as an example, were only one of the nomad tribes which inhabited the Asian Steppes; however not until unification under Jenghiz Khan, did they become the Mongol nation. They had their own culture and their own tribal laws.

It was frequently necessary for nomadic tribes to engage in internecine wars which were usually not unprovoked. The strongest chief got the best grazing lands, and it was often necessary to obtain and keep them by force. Following tribal customs more often than not resulted in conflict with another tribe.

Judging nomad tribes by our standards, something we sometimes unwittingly do, is not fair to them. We must look at them in their time and place, recognize that their fight for survival and their severe life kept them at a lower cultural level than their more sedentary neighbors. We can only imagine their reaction, upon encountering the comparative luxury of the sedentary populations in their path.


, according to Webster: of or relating to a land or culture, or people alien and usually believed to be inferior to one's own.


, according to Webster: possessing or characteristic of a cultural level more complex than primitive savagery but less sophisticated than advanced civilization.


, according to Webster: member of a people with no fixed residence but wandering from place to place usually seasonally and within well-defined territory in order to secure a food supply.

Early Western writers referred to the Mongols as barbarians rather than nomads. Their opinions were largely based on Mongol military conquests and atrocities so often written into their accounts. While Brent says "... their activities have become synonomous with senseless cruelty, a violation of all security, all boundaries; for centuries they were regarded as the epitome of human destructiveness," he further adds, "It has taken the cold ingenuity of the twentieth century to match and even outstrip them the heinous crimes that both legend and true recollection have placed at their door." And legends must be taken with a grain of salt. What is said of the Mongols can be said of many of the nomad tribes of Asia and Eastern Europe.

Looking at the Middle Ages as a whole, we find it a period of warfare and upheaval. Morris Bishop writes of the conditions in the West during The Hundred Years War, "...War became a rather dirty business. It was conducted by contract armies, recruited anywhere without concern for nationality. ...knights fought no longer from feudal obligation and loyalty but for advantage. Their dream was to capture and hold some noble for an enormous ransom." The Mongols were loyal to Jenghiz Khan and even when Turks made up a large part of their fighting forces, the Mongols still fought as a unit, loyal to their commanders. While they were not paid and did receive large quantities of booty, their unquestioned loyalty to their leader was their true incentive for remaining loyal. Nomad tribes were loyal to their clan chiefs and as long as their chiefs led them to good grazing lands and protected them from other raiding tribes, the nomads remained loyal to their leaders. The Mongol army was an excellent example of tribal loyalty. It was organized on a decimal system, which was not new, as nomad armies before Jenghiz Khan's time had been so organized. It was a simple but effective system. A troop of 10, called an arban, was the smallest unit. A squadron of 100, made up of 10 arbans, was called a jagun. A regiment of 1,000, made up of 10 jaguns, was called a minghan. A division of 10,000, made up of 10 minghans, was called a tumen. Generally there would be two to three tumens in a Mongol army. A personal bond of loyalty united the captains of tens, hundreds, thousands and ten thousands, a feudal principle surviving in Asia while it was dying in Europe.

George Vernadsky in volume 3 of The Mongols and Russia writes, "In one of the momentous epochs in history, the period of Mongol expansion, the Asiatic nomad people grew into a race of conquerors who deeply affected the destinies of China, Persia, and Russia and threatened Central Europe." Over the centuries other nomad chiefs united a number or tribes and invaded territories to the south and west of them, namely Eastern and Western Europe. None were as successful as the Mongols but nevertheless they raided and plundered. They were not successful in holding territory for any length of time; but considering their lifestyle, it is highly unlikely that they wished to hold and govern what they conquered.

H. G. Wells, quoting Bury, noted, "It is only recently that European history has begun to understand that the successes of the Mongol army which overran Poland and occupied Hungary ...were won by consummate strategy and were not due to a mere overwhelming superiority of numbers...It was wonderful how punctually and effectually the arrangements of the commander were carried out in operations extending from the Lower Vistula to Transylvania. Such a campaign was quite beyond the power of any European army of the time, and it was beyond the vision of any European commander. There was no general in Europe, from Frederick II downward, who was not a tyro in strategy compared to Subutai. It should also be noticed that the Mongols embarked upon the enterprise with full knowledge of the politcal situation of Hungary and the condition of Poland--they had taken care to inform themselves by a well- organized system of spies; on the other hand, the Hungarians and Christian powers, like childish barbarians, knew hardly anything about their enemies." It must be remembered here that the Mongol armies were composed of many nomad tribes, led by nomad leaders. Although using an army as an example of civilization may be questioned by some, it does reflect the nomad's ability to think, organize, cooperate, carry out orders and exhibit a highly developed sense of loyalty.

Bishop characterizes the time of the `Hundred Years War` as one where, "Terror was a normal condition of existence. The new professional soldiers had no liking for pitched battles; they preferred devastation and plunder, until in the end there was little left to plunder and devastate...Mercenaries appeared throughout the land. Impoverished German knights in particular made a career of war. "Duke" Werner von Urolingen led a band in Italy, whose operations were worthy of the Mafia. He would invade a peaceful region, rob, rape, kill and burn and then inform the capital city of his deeds, and demand a fee for leaving the territory - or else! It was common among many nomad tribes to exact tribute in lieu of attack and plunder. This practice seems to be a bit more civilized than raiding, pillaging, burning and then being paid to leave the territory.

The Hundred Years War was a futile war, achieving little but misery, destruction and death. So much effort was extended with so little to show for it. Mongol destruction and death were not altogether futile, for at least they forged a mighty empire, and throughout Asia and eastern Europe, established `Pax Mongolica' which benefited both the East and West. A nomad army on the move could not provide for prisoners and sometimes as a military tactic the enemy was killed to prevent him from following and attacking from the rear. It must have seemed the logical course to follow.

Through the years students of military tactics have studied the campaign strategies of the Mongol general, Subodai; among the most well-known were Napoleon, Gustavus Adolphus, Rommel and Patton. If their culture was so inferior, what could these great commanders learn from a "savage Mongol?"

To maintain communication throughout the Mongol empire, a rapid and effective post system, yam, was organized. A continuous change of mounts, made possible by the enormous numbers of horses available to them, allowed some of the riders to travel over two hundred miles in one day. Is this a sign of an inferior civilization? There were three main classes in the postal system: `second class', carried by foot-runners; `first class', carried on horseback; and `His Majesty's Service', carried by non-stop riders who changed horses but not riders. Not until the 1800s did America make use of a similar postal system.

Extended post roads spanned the entire Mongol empire, which encompassed many nomad tribes, and both valuable merchandise and messages were carried to all parts of the empire. Legend has it that an unprotected young female could take a sack of gold safely from the Don River to Khanbaligh, the city of the Khans.

Nomad merchants dispatched their caravans over these roads carrying new and useful things to Europe. This relinking of Europe and the Orient resulted in an increased cultural exchange, and a greater knowledge of world geography.

Worthy of attention in the field of nomad art were their carvings from horn, bone, and hard wood. From these materials they made numerous articles: plates, cups and bowls; bracelets, brooches and plaques. These artifacts are generally used to describe a civilization's sophistication.

We usually associate polo with very civilized cultures, but Mongol horsemen played polo, which, of course, was only a minor legacy which they left to the world.

Because the Mongols had no Bible or Koran, and no sacred scriptures, they left no lasting monuments to a brief but glorious civilization, for one should call the Mongol nation civilized. Their roots can be traced back to a nomad/barbarian culture, but from the time of unification under Jenghiz Khan, when for the first time they called themselves Mongols, they must be considered a civilized nation.

Many nomad tribes were accused of atrocities, and while they may not have been matched in the West by numbers, they most certainly were in kind. More than one nomad tribe was known to have massacred whole populations of captured cities. Not to excuse the act, it was often done because they could do nothing else with the inhabitants since they could not put them all in jails. On the other side of the coin we have Richard the Lion- Hearted who captured Acre in 1191 and watched calmly as his men massacreed 2,700 Moslems. It would seem that the crusaders were not inclined to extend any Christian charity to their Moslem enemies."

Bishop stated, "The Black Prince captured the city of Limoges in 1370; irritated by its resistance, he had three hundred inhabitants - men, women and children - beheaded. `...It was a great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for mercy; but he took no heed of them,' says Froissart, with hardy a hint of reprobation." Many western writers tend to overlook or downplay such occurrences while they severely censure the same tactic in a nomadic tribe.

The Mongols were criticized for using captured people to precede their troops when attacking and laying siege to cities. Now according to Bishop, "The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable." Bishop was writing of warfare in the West. Apparently the expendability of lives was common in the West as well as among nomad tribes. Often, because nomads had had no experience with conquered cities, they killed the inhabitants and burned the cities. When it became apparent to them that they could use cities to consolidate and expand their power, and be a source of future wealth, the cities were spared. These nomads now became sedentary people, a people they had formerly despised. When they no longer roamed their lands in search of grass and water, they were now referred to by historians as civilized peoples.

Barbara Tuchman writes of the Battle of Crecy, "...dismounted French knights, hampered by mud, fell into helpless disarray...the English archers threw down their bows and rushed in with their axes and other weapons to an orgy of slaughter." One could almost mistake this for a deed of the Huns, Avars or Turco-Mongols, but surely the civilized West could not be guilty of such conduct.

The Inquisition, established in 1233, was another fine example of Western civilization. Being an inquiry into men's faith, no one was safe. To speak to a known heretic was dangerous. The accused was not informed of his accusers who might be liars, murderers or thieves. In ignorance, he had no way to defend himself. He and anyone who stood beside him could be tortured. A nice touch of civilization was exhibited when children below the age of puberty and aged women and men were tortured less severely than the robust!

The trial of Joan d'Arc for witchcraft and heresy, cannot be considered anything but uncivilized. For five months she was mercilessly questioned, until broken down, she recanted and later retracted it. The Church turned her over to the English army who burned her at Rouen. One would be hard put to find in history mention of the Church, the English or the French as barbarians for this barbarous act.

The Middle Ages was an age of needless pain and death. Life was short, dangerous and doomed. It was a cruel violent age, indifferent toward suffering. There seemed to be little respect for human life. We are shocked at the many accounts of tortures, so-called judicial mutilations, blindings and beheadings, many of which were perpetrated in the name of justice. Riasanovsky points out in his Fundamentals of Mongol Law, maiham, (crippling punishment) was unknown among the Mongols; their chief punishments being death, flogging and exile, which do not seem to be as uncivilized as mutilation and blinding.

Twentieth century cruelties are impersonal mass cruelties which we can view from a distance, air bombings, napalm, atom bombs, agent orange, genocides and the starvation of peoples, acts which could be labeled `barbaric`. The Mongol Age was a clearcut quest for power, material gain and the forging of an empire. This is not to say that many of their acts were not barbaric, any more than those of many other nomadic tribes. It is to say that while peoples sometimes commit barbaric acts, they should not necessarily be called barbarians. In the Twentieth century we have had W.W. I and II, Korea and Viet Nam. Can we be so sure why they were fought and what was gained? The Mongols might be thought of as the East's equivalent on a gigantic scale, of the Norman invasion of England. For hundreds of years the nomads were cut off from the rest of Asia; their lifestyle almost unchanged. Hunting and herding supported them; there was no farming because the land could not be irrigated. Meanwhile, the outside world, began to change. The Chinese wore silk clothing and cultivated the land. Dry years on the steppes eventually drove the nomads southeast toward these cultivated lands and here ended the isolation of the nomads. Nomad tribes had a culture peculiar to their own time and place. Since so much of their time was occupied with battling for survival, there was not much time to learn the refinements of civilization.If we go far enough back in time in any race we can find barbarism of some sort.

In the Thirteenth century, while the Mongols were invading China, more than one Chinese general defected to the Mongols, demonstrating their respect for what the Mongols were: natural aristocrats who answered to no master but themselves. This attitude was common among many of the nomad tribes. Their philosophy was that of free men, free to roam where they chose, free from the restraints of walled cities and their responsibilities, free to live as they wished. This freedom tended to create an independence, often an arrogance, in the nomad. They acknowledged no "master" but would willingly follow a strong leader.

Nomadization, a distinct way of life, was different from that which was centered around the city and consequently was known as civilization. Throughout history civilized people tended to ignore the dynamic qualities and cultures of the nomads, viewing then as barbaric. The word "civilized" tends to have a positive connotation while the word "barbaric" implies a negative image. Were these judgements or labels of writers of history unbiased? Were they fair? Were the nomads less rational than sedentary peoples? To what extent should we concentrate on the most ruthless aspects of their behavior? Did the tale increase with the telling? To acknowledge only the brutal aspects of their behavior is to fail to understand the nomads. Nomadic peoples did not recognize political boundaries, and laws other than their tribal customs held no meaning for them, and while they were often wild, they were free.

In the classical world there were many kinds of barbarians, people branded so by their neighbors. Celts were barbarians to Romans for a long time, likewise the Germans to Gaul, and the Slav world to Germania. The people of southern China for a long time were considered barbarian by the Chinese of the Yellow River. Because geographical conditions in all these regions fostered anagricultural way of life the people of Europe and Western Asia, Iran and China arrived at the same stage of material civilization by the second half of the Middle Ages. The nomads of the steppe area, because of geographical limits, were forced to keep to a pastoral, nomadic way of life, similar to that which the rest of the world had known thousands of years earlier at the end of the Neolithic age. Those steppe and forest people who could not follow an agricultural way of life remained at a lower cultural level than their agrarian neighbors. They were not inferior as human beings to the rest of mankind, but were suspended in time as it were, because their environment kept them prisoners while their neighbors developed a more sophisticated way of life.

Nomads acted primarily in ignorance, knowing no other way. It was part of their culture. In the Empire of the Ilkhans in Persia for example, nomadism tried to stamp a settled system out of existence. To a considerable degree they succeeded. Under Hulagu the Mongols deliberately burned and massacreed, destroyed an 8,000 year old irrigation system and nearly ended the mother civilization of all the Western world. They, as nomads having been born into and lived their lives in an open-air environment, viewed sedantary people as weak, indecisive, corrupt, crowded, and totally incomprehensible to them; a blight on good pasture land! Civilization vs pasture, there was no contest!

The Huns, Turks, and Mongols were savages to the sedentary peoples of China, Iran and Europe. It was believed they could be cowed by a show of arms, impressed with titles, and fascinated by trinkets, and that this display would keep them at a safe distance from the cultivated area. One can quickly realize the attitude of the nomads. Herdsman who migrated across the meager grazing lands of the steppe from one dried-up waterhole to another, to the edge of cultivated lands, stared in surprise and envy at the miracle of sedentary civilization. Everywhere his gaze registered abundant crops, buildings stuffed with grain, and all the luxuries of towns life. The work necessary to maintain this kind of life was not only beyond the comprehension of the nomad, it was distasteful to him. He could be likened to a wolf in winter, when it is drawn to a farm and sees a lamb through the fence. Like the wolf, he experienced the age-old urge to break in, plunder, and escape with his booty.

Prosperous farms and towns within sight and contact of pastoral people who suffered horrible famines in time of drought promoted feelings of envy and more than likely some anger at the disparity of life. The farming communities of northern China, Iran, and Kiev were surrounded by an area of poor grazing land where one year in every ten the watering places dried up, grass withered, and livestock and nomad perished. From the beginning of history there has been conflict between nomad and civilized or sedentary people. It could be called a clash between the "haves" and the "have-nots".

Pastoral nomadism is not a step between hunting to farming. The nomad is a specialist in the domestication and control of a large number of animals and management of great tracts of semi-arid land in order to provide food and water for his family and animals. The nomad (which in Greek means cattle-driver) reveled in the freedom of open land and despised the farmer, who was rooted to the land and bound to a life of physical toil, yet he came to envy what the farmer acquired by this physical toil. He had meat from his herds and their skins for clothing and tent covering. He was often a victim of the harsh climate but he preferred that to the sedentary life. In every age nomadic society, while preferring trade to rape, has often been predatory; one tribe fighting another for the best grazing-lands, and the desire for luxury items or manufactured goods beyond their reach has repeatedly driven the pastoral nomads to assault and and plunder the fields and cities of their sedentary and civilized neighbors.

The often harsh ways of nomad tribes cannot be compared to present- day morality. Nomads were influenced by their own environment and by the different cultures with which they came in contact. Modern militarists can see in them a supreme accomplishment of warfare, and pacifists can visualize them asinhuman shedders of blood. They must be judged against the background of their time, as life was then.

Nomads were not stupid, they were simply shaped in a different mold from the so-called civilized dwellers in cultivated lands. They did not yet know the use of writing; but made up for that lack by a painstaking memory. They had special skills and special knowledge enabling them to survive in a hostile environment. This did not make them inferior to their sedentary neighbors. The nomad learned quickly. Instead of raiding the edges of civilization, he penetrated deeper into the settled areas, killing off able-bodied men, carrying off desirable women and young children who could be raised as slaves or warriors. He learned that silver and gold had trade value and were not just ornamental. He developed a taste for wines of the towns, and sweet fruits of the gardens. His women preferred silks to their homemade woolens.

Nomads, for so called barbarians, had a highly developed code of laws by which they lived. The Mongols were an excellent example of this. Fragments 1-9, included here, are examples of the scope of their laws. Death is the punishment for adultery, sodomy, lying intentionally, practicing sorcery, spying on the behavior of others, intervening between two parties in a quarrel to help one against the other, urinating into water or ashes, becoming bankrupt three times, failure to slaughter an animal, that is to be eaten, according to Mongol custom, and if in battle, during an attack or a retreat, anyone let fall his pack, or bow, or any luggage, the man behind him must alight and return the thing fallen to its owner; if he does not so alight and return the thing fallen, he is to be put to death.

Private Law: The Mongols held no private property; the land was for the common use of the tribe and served the purpose of hunting and cattle-breeding. See fragment 34 for distribution of property to heirs.

Criminal Law: The system of punishments of the Great Yassa was simple, the penalties being: death, flogging with rods, and exile. Provision for substitution of ransom for the death penalty was provided for and crippling punishments were unknown.

Organization of the Courts: Jenghiz Khan instituted the office of Chief Judge, but one of his successors decreed that litigations and disputes were to be brought for decision to the Court of the Khan which eventually became an administrative court. A woman's social position, in general, was good compared to much of the rest of the world. She could freely dispose of her property and take charge of her own affairs. This was not the case, in general, in Europe. An interesting provision of the Yassa was the stiff penalty, death, for the same person going bankrupt three times. First and second bankruptcies carried lesser penalties.

Records of Law: The chief legislative instrument was the Great Yassa, supplemented by decrees, or edicts, of the Khans. The Yassa was published about 1218. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it had force and effectiveness throughout the Great Mongol Empire, but it was applied only to Mongols and other nomadic peoples.

Although those nomads who had no religious code to live by, had certain traditions, and according to these, certain actions were considered sinful.

Mongol law, like other nomad law, had its roots in the organization, administration and court of the clan. It developed from the basic needs of the nomadic hunters and cattlebreeders, who had by comparison a rather poor cultural inheritance. Most nomad laws were customs and traditions, passed down from one generation to another, in oral form.

The Yassa of Jenghiz Khan was the best known, the oldest, and also the most important Mongol code of laws. It was compiled between 1206 and 1218, the first decade of the reign of Jenghiz Khan as Emperor of the Steppes. The scattered Mongol tribes, at first, regulated their lives according to local custom. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, these tribes were united under the rule of Jenghiz Khan. With this union came also the union of customary law, which became written law for all the Mongols under the sovereignty of Jenghiz Khan, and was known as the Great Yassa. It was called "Great" because it was the law common to all the tribes as opposed to an individual tribal Yassa which could exist independent of and side by side with the Great Yassa. The turmoil created by the Mongols in Central Asia resulted in an unheaval of peoples, their cultures and their religions. The rise and fall of their empire produced more enduring effects in Europe than in Asia. Much of the culture east of the Euphrates River was stifled under early Mongol dominance, giving rise to a westward flow of culture rooted in the ancient classical world. For the first fifty years of the fifteenth century, learned refugees brought books, works of art, artifacts, ideas and inventions to the West; all of which launched Europe into the greatest cultural regeneration ever experienced by man, the Renaissance.

Jenghiz Khan, his successors, as well as other less-known nomads should be remembered, not for blood baths, pillage and burning, actions not so unusual in their time, but for breaking down the barriers set up in the Dark Ages, and putting the East in touch with the West, to the benefit of mankind in general. This should be their memorial.



Go back to the Horde page!